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Judgment Calls From the Glass Houses

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Have you noticed the overtone of glee in some of the media commentary about South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's confession of an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina? The merriment is unbecoming, and it is based on a virtue that many of the gleeful themselves don't possess.

Sanford, to be sure, probably brought the house down on himself with his holier-than-thou stances on the behavior of others, most notably that of Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston.

In Clinton's case, then-GOP House member Sanford called for the Democratic president's resignation and voted for his impeachment, pointing to the need to restore "moral legitimacy."

Sanford also came down hard on Livingston, who was forced to step down after Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt nearly outed him as an adulterer in 1998.

"The bottom line," intoned Sanford, "is that Livingston lied. He lied to his wife."

"We as a party," Sanford told the Associated Press then, "want to hold ourselves to high standards, period." Talk about setting yourself up.

Until this week, Sanford was riding high with folks on the right as one of the sharpest critics of President Obama's stimulus package. He was a go-to guy for Fox News. So it should come as no surprise that his fooling around in Argentina and his convoluted misrepresentations have brought on tons of ridicule from the left.

Still, there is something unseemly about having fun over another person's failings.

Some of the same yukking it up was heard a week ago when GOP Sen. John Ensign of Nevada disclosed his affair with the wife of a former staffer. Before that, the media had a ball with the news that the prostitution-fighting New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had a thing for high-priced call girls.

Media laughter went on for weeks over former Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig's encounter with an undercover cop in a Minneapolis airport restroom.

And the list goes on: Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter's dalliance with a lady of the evening; former New Jersey Democratic governor Jim McGreevey's disclosure of an extramarital relationship with a man; John Edwards's affair with a campaign aide. A good time was had by scribes and talking heads paid to write and yak about such goings-on.

Oh, I'm familiar with the arguments for giving attention to dalliances by prominent politicians: that the politicians betray the public's trust when they indulge in scandalous behavior; that if they break marriage vows, they may also break laws they swear to uphold; that when they don't live up to the high standards they profess to hold, they fall short of the role models they should be.

Motives are identified with equal certainty.

Since Sanford's Wednesday news conference, the airwaves have been filled with journalists, psychiatrists and pundits feverishly tackling -- with furrowed brows -- the weighty question: "What makes politicians cheat?"

Narcissism. Thrill of the hunt. Desire to show power. Selfishness. A sense of omnipotence.

All of the above and more, say the writers, shrinks and pontificators -- as if the plunge into peccadilloes is prompted by a politician's penchant for taking foolish risks.

Allow a slightly different take on this.

First, singling out hypocrites is fair game. A number of the politicians involved in extramarital affairs have been among the loudest champions of "family values" and the most vocal critics of men and women in monogamous same-sex relationships. Hypocrisy deserves no cover, be the hypocrite a politician, preacher or self-proclaimed protector of public morals.

But isn't it time that we get our noses out of the private behavior of public officials who don't go around moralizing about other people's private conduct or messing around with the public purse, who are breaking no laws or laws that are rarely prosecuted?

If, as some biblical translations suggest, sin means "to miss the mark," a whole host of folks beyond the public arena must join the sinners' ranks, including large swaths of the media, preachers and special-interest groups devoted to passing judgment on other people's morality.

How about giving it a rest?

In a few days, my wife, Gwen, and I will celebrate 48 years of marriage. I look with awe upon couples who describe their long stretches of marriage as times of untrammeled bliss: I look with awe, not envy.

As a couple, some of our best moments have come about through discovery of self and each other brought on by clashes of near-titanic proportions.

You don't reach nearly 50 years of marriage -- at least not in wedlock with yours truly -- without learning a thing or two about human frailty, love and the power of forgiveness.

My idea, for what it's worth, is that when someone -- well- or little-known -- stumbles in marriage, the best thing the rest of us can do, media included, is to back off and give that couple a little space to work it out since they, most likely, are the only two people who know it all.

One thing's for sure -- we don't.

kingc@washpost.com

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